Guardian global boss takes shot at rivals for lack of digital adaptation

david_pemselThe man in charge of the international editions of The Guardian, David Pemsel, has admitted new media organisations like Buzzfeed and Mashable “have changed the news ecology” and insisted native advertising is consistent with the brand, as long as it is labelled well.

In a wide ranging interview with Mumbrella, deputy managing director of The Guardian Pemsel said the group was also considering the possibility of launching its dating site, Guardian Soulmates, in other markets, as it looks to go beyond “anonymous user data” and learn more about its audience, in addition to rolling out a redesigned website and mobile apps in the next quarter.

He also took a swipe at rivals which needed to satisfy shareholders, saying they had not managed to make the transition to the digital age, adding: “In that world you’ve got to be able to come up with soundbites like ‘print’s very strong’ to keep the shareholders off your back.”

As part of its drive to deepen engagement with and find data about its readers the company is rolling out more events in Australia in 2015, having already established a Masterclass series. Readers are now able to sign up to memberships and even become patrons of the masthead, in a bid to drive deeper connections with readers, and harness more data.

The Guardian's MD McClelland

The Guardian’s MD McClelland

Whilst the membership service will be a large play with dedicated facilities in the UK, in Australia and the US it will initially be around “pop up events”.  “That’s about deepening our relationship with our audience but also capturing data and getting people signed up whether it be to masterclasses or membership,” said Pemsel. “We’ve got a dating site in the UK which we might roll out beyond the UK as well.”

Guardian Australia managing director Ian McClelland said that a deeper dive data play meant the masthead did not have to compete on a like-for-like basis against faster-growing digital rivals.

“If we were competing on an anonymous audience display advertising level they would be eating our lunch and we’d probably lose that battle against massive sites that use click bait techniques to drive volume,” he said.

“But that’s why we’re increasingly using more data to do highly targeted campaigns, doing brand partnerships to create integrated campaigns and sponsorship for brands in the language of the Guardian specifically for our audience. And then we’ve got consumer revenue channels, products and services tailored to our audience and finally membership which is another revenue channel and using that strong bond and trust with the brand.”

Pemsel defended The Guardian’s funding model, with backing from the billion-dollar Scott Trust helping cover massive revenue shortfalls for the brand globally in advertising revenue, saying “we earned that money”. He added it was the only way it could guarantee to carry on independent journalism to differentiate itself from competitors, pointing to scoops including the Edward Snowden revelations as a result of its “open journalism” policy.

“That kind of journalism is very expensive and it requires some of the best talent in the world,” he said.

“If you were the venture capital company with a pot of money to invest would you look at the company that’s gone from zero to 70m uniques in a  year and say that’s a good bet and spin it off, or do you back the longer term organisation that’s there to hold people to account and do serious journalism? They’re just completely different models.

“We have to play on a global stage for sure and our investment in America and Australia are going to be substantial. We’re well ahead here of where we thought we would be and that gives me confidence to invest more.”

Turning his attention to more youth-oriented rivals Pemsel said: “The fact people try and associate themselves to what we do is just really odd. We don’t see those new players that have been set up to build shareholder value quickly as being part of what we do.”

He added: “What has happened is the likes of Buzzfeed, Mashable and the Vices who have claimed to be part of that news ecology has made news provision just a little bit more complex than it was once.

“Before, we used to have red tops (tabloids) and the more serious players and within that ecology now we have serious players and algorithm driven sites describing themselves as news providers and one would question whether they’re news or not.

“If you look at the Mail Online, is that really news when you’ve got the carousel of shame on the right hand side driving so much of their traffic, and yet they describe themselves as news. What is news now is a lot more complex than it used to be.”

Asked about the advertising model for the mastheads, Pemsel said content partnerships and “native” advertising now made up a “considerable” amount of revenues. But he insisted the practice was not at odds with the company’s values.

He said: “The word native baffles me, a lot of brands are trying to work out how to tell engaging stories and they look to an organisation like ours that does that 24 hours a day globally. What we will do is work in partnership.

“Labelling is really important, being really clear and given our position of trust any form of deception is going to backfire for us and the brand, so we won’t go there.

“We can be pitching against the nearest competitor here or in the UK and they’ll say we’ll get our journalists to write something about that, but we just won’t do it.”

To this end the publisher has created Guardian Labs, a 120-strong unit of content and digital development experts based in London, with a small unit in Sydney McClelland said “bolted in” to the UK team to help drive development.

McClelland also took a dig at traditional media rivals struggling with the switch to digital models. “Almost every news organisation has used the term digital first, and normally it’s the CEO talking to the shareholders,” he said.

“Fundamentally it’s actually turning the business around so all information and content goes to an API, and from there all of it goes to websites, mobiles and then print. But I think for a lot of them, they haven’t put digital first at all. They’re creating content on a format and a schedule for their traditional media platform and all their digital products are bolted on as an afterthought.

“There are all these media companies calling themselves digital first, but they’re not behaving in a digital first way. It was my relief when I came to the Guardian they had made the turnaround and fundamentally changed the structure of the company.”

Asked which markets are next for the group Pemsel admitted it looked to where traffic was already strong, pointing to Africa and India as potential targets.

“There are big pockets of traffic from Africa and India and that’s probably something we should explore in the same way we did when we came here and the States, and given who we are global reach of influence is important to us. It would be very likely we’d look to those markets.

“We also go into these markets to learn. If you think about a legacy print business, the pace of change in Australia and the States keeps us on our toes. In India bizarrely print’s growing and mobile, and the desktop browser doesn’t really exist at all, so the idea of being able to learn quickly in the mobile space in India is just very interesting.

“Going back to the trust principal, because we’re not answerable to shareholders looking for that quarter on quarter hit we can play a lot. We can say what can you believe we would learn in three years time if we were in these markets or those markets. It makes us more strategic.”

Alex Hayes

Ian McClelland will be speaking at next month’s BEfest event. For more details click here.





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